Murphy's Law: April 11, 2005

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The increasing flood of new technologies in the last decade is changing military procurement in unanticipated ways. It started over two decades ago, when personal computers began to infiltrate the military, doing jobs the existing minicomputers and mainframes would not, or could not, do. Often, the PCs were bought at a local Radio Shack by troops, using their own money. During the 1991 Gulf War, troops were buying their own GPS receivers. Partly, this was because of a shortage of the official army models, partly because the civilian GPS gear was superior to the official army models. 

Around the same time, more troops became aware of the presence, and success, of SOCOMs (Special Operations Command) free-wheeling style of procurement. SOCOM personnel were given considerable freedom to find the best equipment and weapons for the job, wherever they could find it. When the Internet became widely available in the 1990s, more military personnel became aware of SOCOMs methods. At the same time, more and more new, relatively inexpensive technologies began to appear. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is found in the development of micro-UAVs. New materials, digital cameras and wireless communications technologies combined to produce inexpensive (by military standards) UAVs weighing under ten pounds. Its also no accident that many of these look, and perform, like the small, remote control aircraft, built and operated by hobbyists. The gadget geeks were also building toy robots that soon turned into battlefield tools for checking out caves, or possible booby traps. After September 11, 2001, some of these hobby projects were sent off to war. While the traditional military manufacturers scoffed at the idea of hobbyist remote control aircraft being used by the military, the troops had a very different idea. For an infantryman, or Special Forces operator, a five or ten pound remotely controlled aircraft, that could send back live images of what it was seeing over the hill or around the bend, could be a lifesaver. 

This rush of new, cheaper and more effective technology is beginning to bother the traditional manufacturers. These large outfits make lots of money by building high tech, high dollar, items. The new guys are building inexpensive stuff that works better. Now you cant come right out and complain about this. At least not while troops in combat zones are singing the praises of inexpensive gadgets like micro-UAVs. But large corporations think in the long term. So the U.S. Air Force proposes to get things organized by taking charge of UAV development for all the services. The air force is not known for the inexpensive, not with the two billion dollar (each) B-2 bomber or $250 million (each) F-22 fighter. Moreover, the air force has long dragged its heels when it came to UAVs. The pilots who run the air force were not eager to build aircraft that dont need pilots. That kind of thinking has changed as UAVs have become more effective. Besides, UAVs still have pilots, who operate from the ground or a nearby aircraft. That will change eventually as well, with UAVs having operators instead of pilots. But in the meantime, the air force wants to be in charge of deciding what UAVs will be, and which ones will be bought. 

This air force grab at control over UAVs does not go down well with the army. While the marines have their own air force, the army was forced to agree, in the 1950s, to only have helicopters, and a few small winged aircraft. The air force tried to get control of naval aircraft, as was the case in Britain, but that didnt get very far. The U.S. Navy was an early adopter of aircraft, and has been able to maintain its own air force. The U.S. Marine Corps, because it is also part of the Navy Department, also has its own air force. 

UAVs are aircraft, winged aircraft, and, technically, they should belong to the air force. But after Vietnam, the air force let the army try developing a recon UAV. That project failed, and in the 1980s, members of Congress complained that Israel was developing effective UAVs for their army and air force, and why wasnt the United States? So the army and air force (and navy, for that matter) continued to try and get something in the air that worked. This was eventually done by the late 1990s. But at the same time, the micro-UAVs sort of came out of nowhere. The simple technology in these micro-UAVs can be scaled up, to a point, and provide longer range UAVs for larger army units. But at this point, the UAVs begin to impinge on traditional air force territory. This is an example of how new technologies can start in one place, and then wander over to an other area and trigger a bureaucratic war. 

There are also new communications technologies that threaten mainstream military contractors. The U.S. Army, in particular, is desperate to install as much battlefield Internet technology as possible. Rather than wait for the traditional military manufacturers to devise, develop and manufacture such systems, the army (often just the troops) is taking stuff off the shelf and adapting it to battlefield use. These interlopers are drawing sharp criticism from the traditional manufacturers, and the PR effort has an impact. But because of combat veterans lauding  the new, cheaper, gear, and that news getting spread through new, non-traditional information outlets (mostly web based), its not been so easy to shut down the new manufacturers. The traditional manufacturers have responded by setting up mini-companies with their larger organizations, to try and do the same rapid development of the new, entrepreneurial companies. The new technologies have shaken things up quite a bit, and the fracas is far from over.

 


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